I came to Vilnius nursing a terrible head cold. The damp and chilly Baltic climate that hovered over Riga had knocked me sideways. Rarely have I ever been so sick while traveling overseas. My first impulse was to long for home. Since thousands of kilometers separated me from my bedroom, I would have to make the best of a less than desirable situation. There was no direct train between Vilnius and Riga, thus I suffered through a bus ride that made me swear off that mode of transport forever. I arrived in Vilnius sweating and shivering with fever chills. I expected the worst. It was just a short walk from the bus terminal to the Bed & Breakfast where I had reserved a private room. This Bed and Breakfast did not have many reviews on the website I used to book the accommodation, but the few that were posted all said the same thing, it was outstanding.
The proprietor met me at the door with an overwhelming warmth that made me momentarily forget my illness. Her name was Aleksandra and she smiled constantly. The accommodation, known as Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast, felt just like the smile on her face. The atmosphere was upbeat, positive, light, almost giddy. Aleksandra had started the hostel not long ago. She was committed to putting forth a world class effort by providing the best service possible. She said, “Let me know if you have any questions”. I would later discover that she was a rarity, the kind of person who backs her words up with action. The impression she made gave me a new sense of energy. I was ready to go explore Vilnius, no matter my condition.
A Multiplicity Of Ethnicities – Wilna, Wilno, Vilnius
Before arriving in Lithuania I wondered if it could really be that much different from Latvia. The answer was a nuanced yes. Whereas Latvia’s main 20th century historical foe was Russia and then the Soviet Union, Lithuania had battled first with Poland and later the Soviet Union. Vilnius had been at the epicenter of this conflict, contested by a multitude of ethnicities. The Russians knew it as Wilna and the Poles as Wilno. There were not many Lithuanians in the city to call it Vilnius at the turn of the 20th century. The results of an 1897 Russian census (the city was part of the Russian Empire at that time) done according to language shows that only 2% of the population was Lithuanian. Polish speakers outnumbered Lithuanian speakers 15 to 1, Jews outnumbered them 20 to 1 and Russians 10 to 1.
Vilnius was one of the most ethnically complex cities in Europe during the first half of the 20th century. Even though Lithuanians formed their own nation in the aftermath of World War I, Vilnius was placed within the Second Republic of Poland. The creator and then leader of that Republic, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski was a Polonised ethnic Lithuanian. In 1931, two-thirds of Vilnius’ population was Polish, with another 28% Jewish. Ethnic Lithuanians could hardly be found in the city or the adjacent region where they made up a miniscule percentage of the population. World War II changed the ethnic composition of Vilnius irreparably. Lithuania was given the city by the Germans in 1939. In the following years, the Jewish population was destroyed by the Holocaust. Then the Red Army occupied the city at the end of the war. The Soviets forcibly moved out Vilnius’ Polish population (which was 80% of the city in 1944). In moved Lithuanians and Russians.
A Lithuanian City – On A Human Scale
By 1939 Lithuanians were a plurality of the population in Vilnius, a half century later they were a majority. In 1991, Lithuania was the first of the Soviet republics to openly revolt against the communist regime. The squelching of this initial revolution was short-lived as an independent Lithuania was reconstituted by the end of that year. Lithuanians were now in the ascendant, but the capital’s population and the surrounding region were much more heterogenous than other areas of Eastern Europe that had been ethnically cleansed. There were still large populations of Poles, Russians and Belarusians. Scratch just beneath the surface of modern Vilnius and that complex legacy of multi-culturalism begins to appear.
Strolling into Vilnius’ Old Town I immediately noticed the incredible Baroque architecture. Unlike Riga’s Old Town which was laden with Gothic and Romanesque inspired structures, Vilnius evoked a later era of ornately florid, lavish splendor. Along narrow winding alleyways the splendid buildings just kept on coming. I would later learn that Vilnius has some one thousand protected structures and I believe it. Some were gloriously restored, others bore the graffitied tattoos of communist era delinquency. Still others retained a half-ruined charm. The city also seemed much quainter and more inviting than Riga. The architecture (except for the churches) was on a much more human scale. It was a strange feeling to come into a land where I did not speak the language, never really considered visiting and knew little more than what a guidebook told me about its past. Then as if by magic, after a couple of hours I felt totally comfortable. Vilnius would fit me perfectly for several days.
A Place With & Without Problems – Night Lights
That evening I did something very rare for me. I went out to the commons area at Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast. Aleksandra had been so remarkably kind and welcoming when I checked in, that it made me want to socialize for a change. I found a group of travelers chatting while Aleksandra served hors d’oeuvres. The group was full of revealing stories. A young Belarusian man was holding court as his female travel companion looked on. He worked in the Minsk theater and it was obvious that he was a natural. Everything he said or did was intensely theatrical, animated with marvelous hand gesticulations.
A conversation arose about police in the post-Soviet nations. I said that in Ukraine, specifically Kiev, the police force appeared to be menacing. Aleksandra’s husband said the Lithuanian police never would come when you had a problem and were only interested in enforcing corruption. The young Belarusian man outdid us both. He said, “that was nothing compared to the Belarusian police.” “When they arrest someone, they know they are in real trouble.” And this was not for the crime, but just for the fact that the Belarusian police were involved. He made a frightful face and said, “If you get taken in, there is no telling what might happen.” Then he let out a mocking laugh. We all knew what he was talking about.
A young woman from Kazakhstan, whose parents were ethnically Lithuanian, began to converse with me. If I understood her correctly they had been part of a Soviet era migration to work in Central Asia. I mentioned the quiet silence and distance of Baltic peoples in general. She told me it was much better than Kazakhstan where people were incredibly rude. Pushing and shoving one’s way around public transport was a given. Brusqueness was not so much an attitude as it was a way of life. Her answers were shrieks of expression. She would pause for a few seconds before replying in a caustic manner.
Then there was Jan, a Pole from Poznan who was in town as a special guest at a chess tournament. One of his forebears was being lauded and he was representing the family. Jan had an amazing knowledge of history, specifically the Holocaust. He was taking a year off from school before heading back to get his graduate degree. He was also going to make a pilgrimage to the place where Pilsudski’s heart was buried, in his mother’s grave. Aleksandra turned out to be ethnically Pole as well. When I asked about issues between Poles and Lithuanians she replied with a beaming bright smile. She didn’t have any problems. And at that moment neither did I. The world outside, the world of division and separation melted away in that room. I felt a feeling of warmth and comfort, almost like home. In a sense I was at home, Vilnius Home Bed & Breakfast.